Dubai: Land of contrasts

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, capital of the UAE, offers guided tours.
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, capital of the UAE, offers guided tours.

DUBAI — The oddity of our spending Easter in an Islamic emirate was not lost on us as my husband and I traded the annual candy-laden Boston bunny for the bunny slopes at Dubai’s Mall of the Emirates.

At the front entrance — emblazoned with golden snowflakes in the heat and humidity — we learned that the mall experience is as much about people-watching and car-scoping as it is about shopping as we wormed our way inside, dodging fellow tourists craning to look at Bentleys, Lamborghinis, and Ferraris. The cars offered a glimpse into Dubai’s reputation for ostentatious wealth, and indeed, you can while away a whole day at one of the city’s shopping meccas. But these commercial wonders don’t tell the full story — one of a region with a long, rich history, intrinsically linked to the trading of goods and services, a centuries-old blending of societies and cultures. Welcome to a land that’s more New York than “Vegas of the Middle East,” at a cultural crossroads trying to define itself without losing sight of its Bedouin past.


As the United Arab Emirates has built up a reputation as the land of the “biggest, fastest, and tallest,” we decided to kick off our four-day Middle Eastern adventure at the top — literally — with a visit to the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa. From the 124th floor, you can look through scopes offering three perspectives: today’s burgeoning city on the rise, cranes operating 24/7 to construct what seems like a science-fiction metropolis rising from the desert sands; the lonely dunes of a century ago; and Dubai’s meteoric boom that began after oil was discovered in the region in the 1960s. Molton Brown products in the public restrooms reflect the prosperity surrounding you.


Though it’s cool to say you’ve ascended the world’s tallest building, travelers can save the admission fee of $35 and instead grab a drink at Vault, atop the 71st floor of the world’s tallest hotel: the J. W. Marriott Marquis, our conveniently located oasis for five nights. From there, you can see not only the twinkling Burj Khalifa — perhaps prettier from the outside than in, and especially romantic when the sun has set — but also the illuminated water show at the nearby Dubai Mall, when during Bellagio-like theatrics, jet streams dance to Arabian music.

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A visit to the Dubai Mall is cool during the day, too, as it competes with the other mall’s indoor slope by offering an ice rink and glass-walled aquarium with mesmerizing views of sharks and stingrays.


We grabbed lunch on the patio at Baker & Spice, which specializes in Lebanese cuisine and tasty salads made with organic produce. The fresh-made juices, ubiquitous throughout Dubai, are especially good here. As to be expected in a place where commerce is king (or emir), mall dining is quite popular, and we also savored juicy burgers and homemade whole-grain and walnut bread on the interior patio of Tribe restaurant at Mall of the Emirates.

Looking out onto one of the many fountains, we watched families, teens, and Emirati women dressed in abayas take photos and ogle the latest Burberry handbag and sequined wedge sneakers. It is an unforgettable sight to see women covered head to toe expressing themselves through accessories, and heartwarming to see many different kinds of people joyfully posing for snapshots.


For food for thought of a different kind, we spent the better part of a day at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding.


Strolling through the Bastakiya neighborhood, we learned about the city’s rapid metamorphosis from guide Nasif Kayed, who showed us how the Bedouins went in a generation from living in stick huts to homes made of coral from Dubai Creek to palatial compounds. He regaled us with the story of Dubai’s transformation from a fishing and pearl-diving community. Forward-thinking sheiks advocated for economic diversity and public education of both genders. Dubai’s Cinderella story was complete with the discovery of oil.

Weaving through pathways so narrow they are cooled by shade, Kayed candidly chats about women’s rights, working outside the home, and equal pay before we step inside Diwan Mosque, one of the few Islamic centers for prayer that is open to the public. A digital clock providing the five daily prayer times is an amusing juxtaposition for a religion that is still true to its roots in the seventh century.

For a special treat, stick around for a traditional Emirati meal. During ours, Kayed told us about attending college in the United States in the 1980s and learning English. The UAE pays for university for Emiratis, and many attend in the States. Because many of them have lived overseas, the Emiratis we spoke with have an enlightened worldview. Lunch, like the conversation, is family style, and chicken and meats — excluding pork, of course — are paired with seasoned rices, dates, cardamom-imbued Arabic coffee, and awamat, doughnuts with honey syrup.


For doughnuts of a different kind, we headed to Ferrari World Abu Dhabi and competed in simulated Formula One races.

A day trip to the capital of the UAE is yet another excursion of extremes and juxtaposition, and doing it in a cheap economy car amused us. It was easy to rent —Thrifty delivered it to the Marriott — for about $50 a day. Even better, filling the tank costs just about $20 in the Middle East.


Despite a few twists and turns (like New England, the Middle East has rotaries), it’s a relatively straight shot to Yas Island, where adventure in many forms awaits, including Yas Waterworld. After spending the greater part of the day at the world’s largest indoor amusement park riding Formula Rossa, the world’s fastest roller coaster — zero to 150 miles per hour in 4.8 seconds! — we found ourselves drawn to cultural pursuits, and headed about 20 minutes west to Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque.

Here the throaty roar of simulated engines was replaced by a hushed reverence. No matter your religion, viewing this magnificent structure is much like a first-time visit to the Vatican or the Taj Mahal — it’s hard not to be amazed sheerly from an architectural standpoint. For another rare look inside a mosque, walk through independently or enjoy free guided tours every day except Friday.


Exploring Old Town is one of the quintessential Dubai experiences. Cruise back in time aboard an abra water taxi for just 1 dirham; at about a quarter, it’s one of the city’s best deals and a great way to cool off as you cross Dubai Creek and head toward the gold and spice souks. In a wonderfully clean emirate filled with delightful smells (not the least of which are Emiratis’ perfumes and colognes), this traditional market is a great place to pick up some of the rose petals that scent the water customarily provided at the doorways of local homes for hand-washing.

You can glimpse the interior of one such home at Heritage House, part of the Al Ahmadiya complex featuring a restored merchant’s quarters. Reserve a tour in English or wander through independently and discover how life has changed in Dubai over the past 100 years. Admission is free.

Nearby we enjoyed the courtyard and a delicious and affordable ($30) traditional lunch at the new Al Bait Alqadeem restaurant, featuring flavorful kebabs and refreshing, complimentary cucumber rosewater.


One of the best ways to experience the landscape here is a “safari” featuring several traditional activities, and we reserved ours through Desert Adventures.

Boarding a four-wheel-drive and doing our best Lawrence of Arabia impressions in headscarves, we were paired with a family from Munich and shimmied amicably across the dunes on our way toward a mass of Persian rugs in the sand for a falconry show. One of the highlights of our trip was meeting all sorts of friendly people — Pakistanis, Filipinos, Africans, Europeans, and Emiratis alike — and, conveniently, almost everyone in Dubai speaks English.

At a camp surrounded by sand and stars overhead, we socialized while feasting on kebabs cooked over open coals; marveled as a belly dancer flipped her hair; and eschewed the sweet smoke of hookahs in lieu of a camel ride in the dark of night, our shadows like the silhouettes of the three Wise Men. We couldn’t help but feel some sort of ancient allure in this Middle East outpost, a warmth both literal and metaphorical.

Carley D. Thornell can be reached at